Deaf Republic by Ilya Kaminsky
Graywolf Press, March 2019; 96 pages
Reviewed by Luisa A. Igloria
From Unspeakable Sorrow, Tenderness
History books are full of accounts of dictatorships, purges, mass incarcerations; of wars, the bombing and burning of cities, the slaughter of innocents. These are not things safely confined to the past: they are assaults that continue to happen daily in our midst, with such devastating frequency so as to almost feel, dangerously, “normalized.”
A few years ago, we heard of over half a million stateless people forcibly displaced from their homes in Burma. In April, we watched as hundreds of grieving families buried the loved ones they lost in the Easter Sunday suicide bomb attacks in Sri Lanka. At our borders, thousands of migrant children are still separated by this administration from their families. In the United States, more than 1,000 black men die from police brutality every year. And in the Philippines, the number of EJKs (extrajudicial killings) under Duterte’s “war on drugs” now runs over 20,000.
The first question Ilya Kaminsky’s Deaf Republic asks readers is, how does one survive atrocity after atrocity, live through extended periods when history seems to have turned against the people? Or, how can we forgive ourselves for knowing what is happening, but not saying or doing anything?
And when they bombed other people’s houses, we
but not enough, we opposed them but not
enough. I was
in my bed, around my bed America
was falling: …
in the street of money in the city of money in the country of money,
our great country of money, we (forgive us)
lived happily during the war.
~ “We Lived Happily during the War”
After this frontispiece poem which strategically links the reader to everything that follows, Deaf Republic swiftly brings us into the fictional town of Vasenka, which along with the entire country is under some kind of siege. Before armed militia descend upon the people, it’s possible to imagine Vasenka as a place where fields and trees blossom with fruit in summer and grow austere in winter; where houses touch shoulders with each other and where, if one leaned out a window, the wind could bring news of what is going on in the square or across the river.
Before the violence wrought by war, people knew the true currency of what they gave freely to each other in the deepest intimacy: “we kissed a coin from your mouth to mine” (from“Of Weddings before the War”). Young and old enjoyed their simple pleasures :
… neighbors flock to the piano music from Sonya and Alfonso’s puppet show in Central
In allegories of power and their depiction of the imbalances it engenders, it’s the very young or the very old who are able to see the truth and call out lies. So it is the boy Petya, “the deaf boy in the front row,” who refuses to acknowledge the puffed-up sham of despotic rule. Challenging the soldier who comes to enforce orders to disperse the crowd, Petya “gather[s] all the spit in his throat, and launch[es] it at the Sergeant.” Petya is shot and killed:
The sound we do not hear lifts the gulls off the water
After that, the whole town becomes deaf. Their deafness becomes a form of insurgency:
In the name of Petya, we refuse.
Our hearing doesn’t weaken, but something silent in us strengthens.
~ “Deafness, an Insurgency, Begins”
When Alfonso and Sonya are also killed and their newborn Anushka is taken by the soldiers, it is Momma Galya Armolinskaya and her puppeteer girls who stage ruse after ruse to disarm and trick the enemy, using their bodies and their wit.
On a night like this God’s got an eye on her
but she isn’t a sparrow.
In a time of war
she teaches us how to open the door
~ “When Momma Galya First Protested”
A number of the poems in this book appeared in earlier versions at the Poetry Foundation website. But it took Ilya Kaminsky, a Court Appointed Special Advocate for Orphaned Children in Southern California who also holds various academic and honorary positions for poetry and teaching, almost fifteen years to bring us these poems of searing observation, trembling beauty, and power.
Kaminsky’s decision to structure the central poems of the book as a kind of play in two acts makes me think of the long and venerable tradition of seditious plays and a theatre of resistance (incorporating puppet theatre) that flourishes in global cultures with strong roots in folk and oral tradition. I’m reminded of how, in the early years of colonial occupation in the Philippines, local theatre groups would conceive of ingenious ways to use their bodies and clothing to display the national flag despite the enactment of sedition laws. The same kind of subversive spirit is lauded by one of the speakers in Deaf Republic:
My people, you were really something fucking fine
on the morning of the first arrests:
our men, once frightened, bound to their beds, now stand up
like human masts—
deafness passes through us like a police whistle.
~ “Alfonso Stands Answerable”
The last poem, “In a Time of Peace,” ushers us out of Deaf Republic and back into the tragedies of our own present time.
Ours is a country in which a boy shot by police lies on the pavement
We see in his open mouth
of the whole nation.
Snow fills the mouths of puppets and “children’s hands … make of anguish // a language” (from “Search Patrols”). But it is a testament to Kaminsky’s great skill and maturity as a poet that it’s not just the shrouds of anger or despair that follow the reader out of each cell of the Deaf Republic. The central speaker says “You are alive, … therefore something in you listens;” and admonishes in “Eulogy: “You must speak not only of great devastation”— as though, even after being touched by the most unimaginable sorrow, we are given this one way to walk in the world again, asking in each encounter: “Is that you, little soul?” (“In the Bright Sleeve of the Sky”)
Luisa A. Igloria is the winner of the 2015 Resurgence Prize (UK), the world's first major award for ecopoetry, selected by former UK poet laureate Sir Andrew Motion, Alice Oswald, and Jo Shapcott. Natasha Trethewey selected her manuscript What is Left of Wings, I Ask, as the recipient of the 2018 Center for the Book Arts Letterpress Poetry Prize. She is the author of the full length works The Buddha Wonders if She is Having a Mid-Life Crisis (Phoenicia Publishing, Montreal, 2018), Ode to the Heart Smaller than a Pencil Eraser (selected by Mark Doty for the 2014 May Swenson Prize, Utah State University Press), Night Willow (Phoenicia Publishing, Montreal, 2014), The Saints of Streets (University of Santo Tomas Publishing House, 2013), Juan Luna’s Revolver (2009 Ernest Sandeen Prize, University of Notre Dame Press), and nine other books. She teaches on the faculty of the MFA Creative Writing Program at Old Dominion University, which she directed from 2009-2015. www.luisaigloria.com